Finally, it seems, the time has come for The War and Treaty. Comprised of married couple Tanya and Michael Trotter, the duo’s strong bond, rich personalities and soulful music have propelled them through some outrageous setbacks over these last few years, now landing them at the very beating heart of Americana.
Long before they became an item, Tanya had already made a name for herself, notably featuring in the film Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit alongside Lauryn Hill. Meanwhile, Michael’s musical path was more circuitous. It was after he’d signed up for the US Army and got posted to Iraq that he wound up finding his mission in playing songs for fellow soldiers.
Though the pair hadn’t yet met, Michael had already spotted Tanya in the movie and, rather fortuitously, her head was turned when she heard him perform at a local festival.
By 2014 the new couple had formed The War and Treaty and started to experience the highs and lows of a music career. Over the years, their sound evolved, carrying them through to recognition worthy of securing great opening slots for the likes of John Legend, Al Green and Brandi Carlile.
Despite the pandemic pausing their progress, Michael still suffering from PTSD and Tanya getting heavily ill from Covid - which continues to affect her vision and energy – the War and Treaty are anything but quitters. Instead they became stronger, lauded by the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Americana Music Association, who made The War and Treaty their 2022 Duo/Group of the Year.
Now they have a new, major label album, Lover’s Game, produced by none other than Dave Cobb, a headlining tour and plans to conquer the world with buckets of charm and harmonies. Just listen to the hugely soulful ‘Have You A Heart’ and the sweeping drama of ‘Blank Page’. Or hear their country side on ‘Yesterday’s Burn’ where Michael channels his idol, Kenny Rogers, and ‘That’s How Love Is Made’ which they’d have loved Dottie West and Kenny to have duetted on.
We spoke to the genial and self-deprecating Tanya and Michael from their Tennessee home, and on the eve of this latest part of their journey, to delve deep into how they work, why they’ve chosen this genre, and what makes them tick…
How did you get paired with the amazing Dave Cobb as your producer on your new album?
Michael: We’ve known each other since about 2017. We’ve always threatened to work together, and Universal provided the opportunity to make that threat a reality. I’m so grateful that they did. To work with Dave is so much fun, and we actually ate more than we worked. That’s the honest to God truth. His wife is a wonderful cook and we ate tapas one night and spaghetti another night. We just ate a lot of food and really enjoyed each other’s company.
Aside from that, we were there for him. Dave lost his mom last year and we didn’t care any more about the music. It was all about Dave Cobb the person and not the producer. We were able to see another side of him, and that allowed Tanya and I to fall more in love with Dave and vice versa for him. We are friends and we take care of one another.
Tanya: Dave encouraged us to trust ourselves; that what we already were doing is what we should do in the studio. We try not to make things perfect because nothing is perfect, no-one’s perfect and he kind of had the same approach. He just said get in there and do what you guys gotta do, then walked out the room.
‘Angel’ is a song about love entwined with religion, and I wonder if you’re both at the same place in your faith?
Tanya: We are on the same wavelength of what we believe. Our faith is the compass to take us where we go, we pray together, cry together, we have dreams together, manifest things together. So we believe the same things and that’s a big part of why we’re able to move forward as a couple and a unit. People see the unity first and feel our faith.
What were your roles in writing the songs on this album, like ‘Ain’t No Harmin’ Me’?
Tanya: Michael is definitely better with melody and lyrics, because he gets everything at the same time. I’m inspired much slower than Michael – for every song I write he’s already written 10. Then he comes to me and says what you think about this song I wrote? And I hear something that needs to change and we’ll come to an agreement to keep it like it is or change it.
He’s prolific. He probably wrote more than 100 songs during the pandemic. I stopped counting! Our music director was laughing the other day because he has over 750 songs in his database from Michael, and only he’s been our music director for five years. We’ve been married for 12 years so just imagine the songs I have in my head!
What’s been your biggest challenge, personally and as a duo?
Tanya: Early on we had to get on the same page about where we wanted to go musically. Then we somehow just stumbled into Americana – we didn’t even know it was a genre, we were trying out different things we loved and hearing our voices on different things.
The challenge – the beauty of what we do – is where I feel limited with my vocals and my voice, Michael picks up and takes it even further. It’s the same with him, and we finish each other’s sentences for lack of a better way of explaining it, that’s what we’ve done for each other.
Maybe Americana was tailor-made for you – this all-encompassing, multi-style genre?
Michael: I prefer to not be boxed in! I love being all over the place, I’m all over the place anyway. I’m all over the place in my marriage, in my finances. One day I’m broke, the next day I’ve got money. As long as they get my name right I don’t care!
You were the first African American duo to perform at the CMAs. Is the notability of this still important, or is it high time this wasn’t even remarkable?
Tanya: One of the things about living in a place like America is that there are so many different kinds of people that bring their cultural experiences to it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging that. For instance, for the Super Bowl, the young lady who did the sign language was the first female to be out there doing this, and it was amazing.
If you are the first woman or the first African-American… or my mom was Hispanic, so I was the first Black Latina to perform at the Country Music Awards. There are so many different elements that make up this great country, and that’s what makes America very unique from any other place. We are a melting pot of so many different things.
When did you each discover music was within you?
Tanya: I grew up in a church where my brother would always sing, and my mom was also a Latina classical singer, so I listened to all kinds of different things. I remember one day I was downstairs and just started singing - that’s the first time I actually heard my voice. I was eight years old and I said to myself, I think I can do what I’ve seen my brother doing every Sunday morning. I told my brother and my mom that’s what I wanted to do, and I’ve been on that journey ever since.
Michael: I was a whopping three years old when I did my first song in church. I was standing on the organ bench, my uncle was playing and it was so much fun. I remember the response and my grandmother’s voice, she’s no longer with us, she’s been gone since 1988, but that’s the only voice I remember at that moment. I remember her saying: “sing, baby!” And she was a hymnal thrower, so when I would sing good she threw that hymnal.
It wasn’t until my military days where I understood I have the gift of healing through music. That just changed the game. It was no longer about me, it was about the gift inside of me and how it can bring healing to a broken and hurting world.
You were in the 6th Infantry Regiment in Iraq and played piano in Saddam’s palace… was it as surreal as it sounds?
Michael: It felt very cinematic at the time but really, it’s poetic - in the middle of war, I’m learning and falling in love with an art form, which was piano playing and songwriting. I was daydreaming like a mug. I had a detail where I would sweep the helo-pad at night, that should only take an hour, but kept taking me about four hours. I kept performing concerts on this helo-pad, because the lights looked like the bulbs in the Ryman, and I kept having my Johnny Cash moments.
I’m singing and acting like I’m already there, daydreaming that if I make it out of the war alive, I’m going to sing at Carnegie Hall one day, I’m going to get on the Ryman and do the Opry. And now me and Tanya have performed at the Ryman and on the Opry. I’m grateful for my time of learning that healing power in Iraq.
So were you writing songs for the other soldiers too?
Michael: I would write songs on the spot, freestyle. Another soldier would take out his guitar and play, and we’d make up songs. I realised that Iraqis were sitting outside listening to me sing. At one point it was like a request situation and on one side of the gate my audience was US soldiers, and on the other side of the gate were Iraqi nationals.
My job was changed with that piano. Because I was a screw-up and my fear was messing a lot of things up. I was terrified of being in Iraq; I wasn’t a powerful Rambo kind of soldier.
My captain took me down in the basement of where we were staying, where that piano was. I learned to play the piano and write songs out there, but it wasn’t until he got killed that I wrote my first song. I sang it at his memorial out in Iraq and it brought so much healing and resolution to the soldiers, that my colonel changed my job right there on the spot, and said: “Trotter, from this day forth, this is your new job. You’re going to go around and learn about the fallen, you’re going to write their song, and then you’re going to sing it at their memorials.”
So I did that from 2005 to 2007, but I wasn’t paying attention to the fact that at some point I gotta get healed, at some point I gotta mourn these people I’m singing about, because I knew over 90% of them, they were my battle buddies.
That’s where my PTSD came from, it didn’t come from me seeing John get blown up or things like that, it came from me suppressing my sorrow and sadness for losing my battle buddies. I had PTSD because of music. The music wasn’t doing the trick for me, and it may seem very clichéd, but it was the love of my wife. It was Tanya’s voice, her care, her patience, her physical touch rubbing my head and massaging me and trying to calm me down and remind me that the war is over. She got me to a point where I could see the beauty in the music again.
How are you recovering from your bad bout of Covid, Tanya? Does it affect your energy levels?
Tanya: I find it does, I didn’t put the two and two together, and there’s certain things that I could do normally and wouldn’t be tired that I had to work at more. Working out, and lifting weights used to come to me easier, and they don’t come to me the same way. I’m still struggling with my vision as well, but overall, I’m just grateful to be alive.
Would you fancy acting again, Tanya, as in Sister Act 2?
Tanya: I’ve learned with this journey we’ve been on to never say never. I’m open to whatever the universe has in store. The goal with everything that we do is ‘felicidad’ as my mother used to say, or happiness in Spanish. Have your life be a place where happiness is at the forefront of everything you do. Acting is one of the things that makes me happy – as well as singing with Michael – so if it comes my way I’m very open to it.
What drew you to Michael when you saw him at a festival in 2010?
Tanya: He has this smile that’s infectious and he was so happy. I mean, there wasn’t a lot of people out there, but he was performing like he was at a stadium. Just him and his guitarist and he was giving it his all. It was wonderful, his smile and his energy – and he was very sexy to me!
I was enthralled by him. We met and one thing led to another… And, of course, he has one of the best voices I’ve ever heard. Michael takes it to another level with his vocal ability, and his understanding of his voice and of music.
Were you perhaps fated to be together musically and emotionally?
Tanya: Completely. I believe your subconscious mind will lead you to your conscious, and if you put some things forward in your mind the right way, all good things will come to you. And I believe that Michael and I were destined to be with one another.
The War and Treaty's debut full-length album, Lover's Game, is out on Friday 10th March via Universal Music.